RECAP: Sudden Death

Sudden Death (1995): Peter Hyams

Perhaps no movie better represents the “Die Hard in a ___” premise better than Sudden Death. The second collaboration between Hyams and Jean-Claude Van Damme, the hockey movie puts Van Damme in one of his least combative roles.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: At Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, a terrorist holds the Vice President hostage, and the only man who can stop them is…the fire marshal. 

Hero (5/10)

Darren McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) was once one of Pittsburgh’s finest firefighters. One sunny afternoon, two years before the events of Sudden Death, McCord ran into a burning building to find a scared little girl. The film opens on this house, lightly burning, not the inferno you might expect.

A lack of towering flames doesn’t alleviate the danger. The camera investigates each room of the burning home as we hear the cries of the girl and the calls from McCord for aid. Finally, the camera finds them. McCord covers the girl. Without warning, the burning roof collapses on them. Firefighters rush to throw the burning mass off them. McCord survives. The girl dies.

Now it’s two years later. McCord is divorced and out of the firefighting brigade. He drives to visit his ex-wife and their two children, Emily and Tyler, to inform them that he’s going to work Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight as the fire marshal. Would the kids like tickets?

One cool dad, taking his kids to Game 7.

Of course they would. McCord takes his children and sits them in a section the lower level of Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, The Igloo, to watch the deciding game. It’s literally Tyler’s birthday.

I know, we’re waiting a long time to get to the parts where McCord saves the day. Well, so does Sudden Death. Instead, McCord drags his kids throughout the arena before the puck drops. They stop by the kitchen, where McCord knows the head chef. They meet a woman who wears the Iceburgh costume, the Penguins mascot. McCord also brings them to the Penguins locker room. Tyler meets Luc Robitaille and embarrasses his dad in front of Tolliver, the starting goalie.

We learn that McCord once played semi-pro hockey in Quebec, and he even speaks French with Robitaille, unsubtitled French, in an American movie. Go figure! The semi-pro thing, keep that in mind.

While McCord is having the time of his year escorting his kids to Game 7, there’s a hostage plot unfolding. The Vice President (Raymond J. Barry) will attend the game with the Penguins owner. A very bad man named Foss (Powers Boothe) captures the owner’s box and demands a lot of money or he’ll blow up the arena at the end of the third period, invoking sudden death.

McCord is the only person inside the arena to learn of this plot, and he’s the only man to stop it, because all the security guards are either dead or in Foss’s pocket. McCord shows off a wide skill set that some might say a fire marshal would not know.

For example, McCord can deliver a world-class martial art kick. He delivers one into the neck of an opponent. That’s amazing flexibility and balance. Also, he can do a jump kick, using both legs at once to kick and opponent in the chest. When do they teach that at firefighter school?

Marvel at the balance and flexibility.

Being a fire marshal, McCord finds the locations of most of the bombs Foss has rigged throughout the arena. How does he find them? He guesses. McCord thought about the most damaging locations for bombs, drew a map from scratch, and found them.

That aspect of his character I believed, because he’s worked that arena several times, enough times to know the mascot, the head chef, and gain access to the home locker room. He would know all the building’s other locations, and as a fire marshal would know weak points.

I didn’t buy his MacGyver-level craftiness. McCord creates a dirty bomb using two glass jars, a clear liquid, and white powder (and no more detail than that). Earlier, McCord uses a piece of hose and a nail to fasten a nail gun. Later, he uses his son’s water pistol to create a makeshift flamethrower.

Again, much time passes before the badass McCord shows his face. For the first period he has no idea what’s happening, spending that time narrating the game to his kids in section D.

Later, McCord wastes much time before realizing that Iceburgh, who he thinks is his friend, is not his friend, and has kidnapped his daughter. When McCord runs to a security guard for help, it’s the one security guard we know is in on Foss’s plan.

Don’t laugh. A man just died.

McCord comes into his own in the second half…of the movie. A hockey game has three periods. I know this. “Everybody’s an expert,” McCord cracks when he meets the bad guy who placed one of the explosives. McCord puts his hands up long enough to shoot a nail into his neck.

McCord then meets Hallmark (Dorian Harewood), the incompetent leader of this unit of Secret Service men. McCord punches Hallmark. “That’s for doing your job half-assed.” When Hallmark asks how McCord killed the nail gun guy, McCord says, “Magic.”

Pittsburgh’s finest fire marshal keeps his cool throughout the ordeal. His only outburst is to a phone operator. “I’m having a real bad day.” Yes, you are. His daughter is kidnapped, and that doesn’t upset McCord that much. He needs that calm to find the bombs, fight the goons, and kill Foss, which he does with little loss of innocent life.

Villain (6/10)

Joshua Foss is a Secret Service agent with a grudge against the US government, and only about $500 million with satiate said grudge.

Those are the facts as Foss presents them in Sudden Death. We never learn why Foss is hellbent on stealing so much money, but we learn that he’s capable of doing it and will kill anyone to succeed.

Here is Foss’s plan: hire a bunch of professional rabble-rousers and murderers, assume the identities of security guards working Game 7, set dozens of bombs at structurally strategic points throughout the arena, hide guns inside giant bags of popcorn, gain access to the owner’s box to hold the Vice President hostage, force him to call the president, have $1.7 billion dollars transferred to several bank accounts and retransferred several times until about a third of that falls through the cracks and into special accounts, fly away from game in a helicopter.

Powers Boothe chuckles his way through Sudden Death.

Interesting plan, and it makes for a hell of a theater. But its audacity is insane, and its maker, Foss, seems insane. He laughs a lot, as if the entire plot is a game to him. But don’t call him crazy; crazy people hate that.

The Vice President asks Foss what he wants. “World peace, an end of bigotry, and no more mini malls.” Lofty goals, Foss, and $500 million will go far to solve these injustices. But to earn that cash, he’ll have to kill a lot of people.

And Foss does. Entrenched in the owner’s box, Foss lets his freak flag fly. A Secret Service agent chokes on something and another asks for Foss to call a doctor. Foss shoots the choking man. Now he won’t need a doctor.

The Vice President laments the agent and his family. “I’ll send a card,” Foss says. Foss even kills the arena’s old chef, friendly Andrew. Foss murders the mayor and his wife, because she annoyed him. Barbaric stuff.

But for Foss it’s all fun and games. McCord picks up on this. He tries to turn the bomb diffusion task into a game, telling Foss to send his best to stop McCord as he finds each bomb. Foss digs it. Later, he threatens to murder young Emily McCord to her face. Coarse, yes, but he did offer her wine and a cigarette before she died. “I’m going to kill your daddy,” Foss also tells her. “What do you think about that?”

Powers Boothe has a villainous face, and it’s put to good use in Sudden Death. Boothe might be the only guy having fun in the movie, and that shouldn’t be the case. Boothe’s Foss is the villain you love to hate, a man so evil that he will threaten a little girl, shoot a mayor in the brain, and enjoy a shrimp cocktail while lightly paying attention to the hockey game. In short, he acts like every fan in the bleachers assumes those in the luxury box act.

McCord’s daughter sums Foss up. “You’re the meanest.”

Action/Effects (2/10)

Van Damme is a hall of fame martial arts action star. Sudden Death tamps his fighting skills and style, opting for a nuanced and vulnerable acting performance.

Yeesh. I can state unequivocally that Van Damme acts in Sudden Death. Yes, he acts. Let’s move on.

Action scenes are few and far between. McCord spends so much time touring the arena, first with his kids and later looking for bombs, that he forgets to fight.

McCord uses MacGyver tactics to fell some goons, and subterfuge to kill more, but let’s face facts. McCord sucks at fighting. Several times McCord finds himself subdued by a villain. He squirms out of the chokes and holds, but too often he’s on the wrong side of his opponents.

McCord on the wrong end of a choke hold.

Consider the beating McCord takes from a mascot. He’s choked three times, and only with a lucky kick does he win the fight against a fully dressed mascot. You can barely see out of those costumes. Makes no sense.

I can only award points for Sudden Death‘s reliance on the silenced uzi. Each goon carries these guns, and they pack a lot of power. Imagine the sound of a sprinkler as it resets to initial position. That fast, wet, clicking sound mimics these silenced uzis, but the guns speed up the splatter five-fold. They sound like jet engines powering up, and the muzzle flash is starlight.

Sidekicks (0/8)

McCord works the game solo. His only help comes from his children Tyler and Emily. Tyler knows enough hockey to recognize Luc Robitaille. These kids sit alone for some time in their seats as dad runs around saving their lives.

Young Tyler meeting the Penguins.

McCord orders Tyler to stay in his seat, even if the building falls down around him. The kid listens, even when Hallmark tries to trick him to go up the owner’s box as collateral for Foss. After the game ends and McCord returns to take him home, Tyler proudly states, “I didn’t move. I DIDN’T MOVE.” Like he’s some goddamn hero.

Emily plays her scenes well, talking down the big meanie Foss. She stamps his hand, the mark that marks him after he disguises himself to escape amongst the panicked fans.

Emily holding her own

These kids were fine, but they’re young kids. Hard to get inspired and excited by their performances.

Henchmen (2/8)

I admit, I was fooled. The Secret Service chief on scene, Hallmark, turns out to be in on Foss’s scheme. I thought he was a buffoon. Hallmark decides to enter the arena about halfway through, going solo. A hero’s move. Turns out he was investigating McCord, to see if he was working alone and to try to kill him.

Hallmark first meets McCord after the former saves the latter by punching out a goon. He could have killed McCord then, after McCord tells Hallmark everything he knows, but he didn’t know who else knew what McCord knew. They are separated when two more goons spray uzi fire at them.

The smile of a man about to be set on fire.

When they are reunited Hallmark is convinced, rightly, that McCord is a lone wolf, and he draws a gun on him. Now’s the time to shoot, but he doesn’t, instead forcing McCord to remove what’s in his pockets. It’s a lighter and his son’s squirt gun.

“What you gonna do, drown me?” Hallmark asks. Nope. That squirt gun is filled with lighter fluid. Combine lighter fluid with an open flame and blammo! Hallmark is on fire. Not a little, completely on fire. Full body full flame on fire. Great stunt.

Hallmark returns moments later, his fire doused, to attack McCord again. He put out his body fire as quickly as he got lit. Poor guy. He led many agents, many good men, to their deaths, so he deserved it.

Check out this goon. I don’t remember him speaking, but this guy’s definitely an Aussie, right?:

Stunts (2/6)

The entire first period passes before McCord beats on anyone. He’s not a cop, remember, just a fire marshal, about the last guy in uniform in the arena you’d want or expect to fight terrorists.

McCord searches for his daughter and finds her running away with Iceburgh, the Penguins’s friendly mascot. Beneath the fluff is a woman of evil intent and murderous action, as she’s just murdered someone in the restroom, which Emily witnessed.

McCord follows Iceburgh into the empty kitchen. (All staff left after completing the Vice President’s meal.) After Iceburgh delivers Emily to the bad guys, she returns to the kitchen and an inquisitive McCord. Where’s my daughter? What’s your problem? Those kinds of questions.

McCord picks up a dropped Penguins hat and sees his last name written on the cap. He knows the penguin took his daughter. McCord wastes no time kicking Iceburgh in the neck. Fight on.

What makes this fight scene great is its brutality, skill, editing–nah. Van Damme fights an ice hockey mascot penguin and mostly loses. That’s why it kicks sites for persons with disabilities

Iceburgh delivers two kicks to McCord, showing impressive mobility in a bulky suit. The penguin picks up the dropped handgun, but it’s slapped away by McCord, who follows with a kick to the back. Both fighters crash into metal racks. Metallic clatter echoes.

McCord punches Iceburgh’s beak. That’s right, McCord forgot that the penguin was not really a penguin. Punching the beak does nothing. Iceburgh retaliates with punches to McCord’s real face and a jump kick. This woman in the suit seems to have practiced fighting in a mascot suit, as if her life has lead to this moment fighting a fire marshal in a hockey arena kitchen.

McCord finds his head near a meat slicer that’s still on. Remember, all the kitchen staff left a few minutes after the puck dropped, and we’re in the first intermission now.

McCord fights off the attack and exposes Iceburgh’s left hand. An important shot shows the painted fingernails of the assassin. McCord continues to get the snot beat out of him as Iceburgh slides him across a prep counter through several shrimp platters, stopping short of a still-on grill. He dodges a meat cleaver chop.

McCord takes the cleaver and slices Iceburgh’s leg, drawing first blood. Iceburgh responds by choking McCord and moving him toward the fry vat, which, you guessed it, is still on. The cooks left a half-hour ago, but they left on all their shit.

McCord pulls the exposed hand into the oil. Iceburgh lets out a terrific scream. He drives Iceburgh’s head into an exhaust fan, lopping off a fluffy eye. McCord doesn’t seem to have cognitive dissonance. He believes the penguin is real and can’t understand why it’s not dead.

Iceburgh finds the gun again and waaaaaaiiiiitttttssss to shoot, giving McCord time to run and leap into her. They throw each other into more metal shelves. The sound is as deafening as the crowd after the Penguins scored the game’s first goal.

McCord again finds himself in a hold. Iceburgh attacks with a meat tenderizer. McCord grabs a large bin of chili flakes and pours them into Iceburgh’s mouth. More screaming. More plates and metal crashing.

McCord delivers the next four blows, finishing with a kick while he hangs from a ceiling pipe. Iceburgh falls onto the rotating dishwasher rack. The fluff is stuck on it, dragging the woman inside with it. The rope holding the mascot head down chokes the woman, and she rides slowly into the dishwasher.

A heaving McCord watches the woman die in the dishwasher, though it’s unclear if the heat or the choking killed her.

Climax (1/6)

You knew the game would go to overtime. But did you know, that it would be SUDDEN DEATH overtime? Lucky Luc Robitaille ties the game at the horn. Next goal wins.

You knew there’d be SUDDEN DEATH.

Foss chuckles at the irony. He chuckles at everything, but in this case it’s the irony. Everyone has a little more time to get the money Foss demands. McCord uses the time to create some kind of incendiary device. He fills one glass jar with a liquid, which he places in a larger glass jar and covers with a white powder. I don’t know what McCord has made, but I expect to find out.

McCord exits the arena and climbs the domed roof, grappling support beams with a rope he found somewhere. Where’s he going?

McCord reaches the top, where a suited bad guy has somehow not noticed McCord’s climbing. That’s hard to believe, but it happened. Some excellent crane shots track McCord’s ascent.

McCord grips a beam and shimmies along past the bad guy. Eventually there’s a fight, and the fire marshal sends the villain shrieking down the roof, where he will slowly slide to his assumed death.

Then, another goon comes on the roof. McCord hides near a power box, where he opens the arena’s roof. As it slides open McCord fights the new guy.

Sudden Death makes skilled use of the crane shot, and its best comes now. The camera follows the action on the ice and rises straight up, past the scoreboard, past the lights, and through the roof to show McCord fighting this new guy. Each man knocks the other over the edge.

McCord gains the upper hand and sends his opponent into the air. The guy grabs a light, dangles for a bit, and lands atop the scoreboard. The sparks, they fly.

Fans finally notice something’s gone wrong at their hockey game when McCord, a rope tied to his waist, leaps down onto a bar. He ties the glass bomb to his belt loop, leaps to catch a light fixture on a track, slides along the track toward the owner’s box and Foss, lets go to grab a dangling light that snaps from the the roof, and throws the glass bomb onto the box roof, exploding a hole that he falls through.

Thumbs up to that sequence. But it ain’t over. Not ’til someone scores. McCord falls through the smoking hole and starts kicking. The first guy he kicks McCord takes his gun and kills two more bad guys.

The camera catches Foss escaping through a door, but McCord doesn’t notice. He sees his daughter, hugs her, fulfills his promise like he always does. McCord offers the Vice President a hand up.

Everyone’s fleeing now, except McCord’s son, who’s still in his seat. Foss, meanwhile, throws away his $15,000 watch, puts on a mustache, and dons a Penguins jacket. That was his escape plan–a mustache. He could have pocketed the watch, but no, he trashed it. Then he flicks on the detonators, to see if McCord got them all.

Boom. McCord missed one. A bomb blows up some pipes, and water floods the concourse. People slip and fall! The humanity!

Everybody’s sprinting out, including the Vice President. McCord, now with both his kids in tow, speaks with a Secret Service agent. Emily spots Foss’s stamped hand. I KNEW that stamp would come into play. Knew it. Yeah, I’m hot shit.

Foss hears the girl ratting him out, and he takes her and runs up stairs as McCord follows. The crane shot comes into play again. Up near the arena’s top goes Foss, McCord, and his daughter. A helicopter hovers outside and slowly lowers a ladder.

That’s Foss’s big getaway plan. A ladder and a helicopter. I can’t imagine that helicopter would make it out of Pittsburgh airspace, but hey, Foss is the guy with the master plan.

McCord and Foss fight more. The lighting stinks, so it’s hard to tell who’s hitting whom. At one point Foss chokes McCord and has him hanging over the edge above the ice. Also, Emily nearly falls out a trap door, dangling by her hands like her daddy did earlier. Must be in the McCord DNA.

The ladder slowly reaches their level. Foss draws a gun, laughs, and points the gun at the girl. He’s not going to kill McCord, instead he’ll make him suffer. McCord dives, in slow motion, and slaps the gun away.

Foss doesn’t care. He laughs again and climbs the ladder. McCord finds the discarded gun and attacks. As Foss reaches the helicopter, McCord shoots the bottom, killing the pilot. The chopper turns exactly 90 degrees backward and falls exactly straight down through the open roof without its blades touching the roof. Inconceivable that that would happen.

McCord and Foss exchange glares as the chopper fall past the hero. The chopper slowly crashes on the ice and explodes as Foss screams in agony. A solid fireball on the real ice ends the terrorist bank theft plot.

Jokes (2/4)

Here is some commentary from the hockey announcers. “Hit so hard his kids’ll be born dizzy.” Nice concussion humor there. “Scratch my back with a hacksaw,” after the Penguins tie the game at two. “You don’t have to think, Mike, this is hockey.” Another solid one. And how about this one, after the Penguins are the first to light the lamp: “Get in the fast lane, Grandma, the bingo game is ready to roll.” That one doesn’t even make sense.

Mike Lange and Paul Steigerwald won the movie.

The announcers got the funniest lines. AH-NOLD would never have let that happen.

Setting (3/4)

Sudden Death takes place inside Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, and the movie uses all the building’s real estate.

McCord climbs the roof of the metallic dome, a giant, shiny boob poking out of the Steel City’s downtown. What’s the opposite of a phallic symbol?

Civic Arena

The roof opens after the second period for a fireworks display. It opens again in the third period when McCord overrides the controls. McCord runs around and fights people all across the arena. He’s on the roof, on the scoreboard, sliding and jumping along the ceiling, he’s in the owner’s box, he’s fighting guys in the equipment room and locker room and weight room, he’s finding bombs beneath the seats and in a storage room.

I’ve never set foot inside the Civic Arena, but if I did today I believe I could find my way to any location.

The filmmakers make extensive work of the camera mounted to a crane, proving that they were inside the arena filming and not on some soundstage. All these locations and techniques grounded the film at the arena. I felt as if I was there.

Commentary (0/2)

Foss had no political motive for kidnapping the president and murdering his colleagues. He states that he voted for the Vice President. He’s just a thief, and not even an exceptional one.

Offensiveness (-2/-2)


Robitaille ties the game in the third period as the clock expires. SUDDEN DEATH flashes on the scoreboard. It’s four to four, next goal wins. We’ve seen all eight goals scored, and are primed for an exciting conclusion.

The puck drops in overtime. Bombs start exploding. The fans and players flee. McCord and Foss do their fighting, the helicopter Foss rides in falls to the ice, explodes, and the day is saved. Medics cart McCord away as his daughter says, “My daddy’s a fireman.” Roll credits.

Nobody won the Stanley Cup. Tearing my hair here. How did they get away with this? Who thought it was a good idea? There’s an argument to be made that the NHL didn’t want to show favoritism, but they already did by putting the Penguins and Blackhawks in the finals. The game was in Pittsburgh, the Vice President meets the Penguins, and the only actually player who speaks is a Penguin. What if they had also won the game? No big deal.

Not crowning a champion is a sports movie cardinal sin, and Sudden Death is GUILTY AS HELL.


  • One of Foss’s goons plays Doom in his down time.

Summary (21/68): 31%

The premise “Die Hard in a ___” is used often to describe action movies. It’s a cliche by now. I am certain somebody pitched Sudden Death as Die Hard at a hockey game. Solo, overmatched hero; suited (in a tux, no less), cultured villain; chatter over the walkie talkies; closed environment; hero leaps from high places; female family member held hostage by villain–Die Hard blueprints underneath.

Van Damme turns in his check-cashing performance of the year, ignoring the martial art skills that made him a legend and maximizing the charm for which Belgium is famous. (Wink wink.)